Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year's End

Yesterday the end of the trail. Today the end of the year. But the sun is out, and it feels like a day of promise, one that could just as easily be a first rather than a last. But it is a last. The end of a long, hard year. Also the end of a year of wonder and fulfillment. A trip to Africa! A son-in-law!

As I take stock of 2015, though, I can't say I'm sad to see it go. It was the last year Mom was on this earth. It was a time of challenge at work. I've had better years.

Still, I've had space these last few days to catch my breath, to write and think. And that means I can see the patterns a little better than I did before. I have a little more faith that I can right myself.

Maybe that's what holidays do for us, especially this megalopolis of holidays. It gives us the time to see where we've been, dream of where we might be going.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Trail's End

I found it sooner than I thought, the southern terminus of the Cross County Trail. Found it and savored it, this beautiful spot along the Occoquan, a place where water meets land. The very tip of Fairfax County.

I've followed the trail more than 40 miles, from the falls of the Potomac along Difficult Run to these placid waters. It was a long walk, a walk of many segments, and now that I've completed it all I can think of is starting it all over again.

It's a good way to feel at the end of a journey. The urge to begin again.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tree Sitting

The presents are unwrapped. The cookies are eaten. The rain (not snow) is falling. But here inside the living room the tree is as splendid as it was when we decorated it last week. The lights illuminate the shiny ornaments and bring unaccustomed brightness to what is usually a dark corner.

Here we are in the final hours of the year, and all I want to do is sit in front of the tree, absorb its holiday happiness, gather in its aroma, stare at its baubles and glass. I notice its one errant limb that really should have been trimmed. Decide to leave it as it is. The tree looks like it's waving.

It has taken so long to get here, to this Christmas moment.

Outside, a female cardinal hops over to the suet block. Rain makes puddles on the deck boards. Trees shift slowly in the breeze.

Inside, it is warmth and light. Inside it is Christmas. Today will be reading and errands and cooking. But it will also be tree sitting. Tree savoring.


Thursday, December 24, 2015


Once again the days have passed, the splendid ones and the trying ones. Once again we've come back to this point, which is for me, and for many, the great pause. Christmas Eve. Christmas Day. New Year's. Once again I'll re-run this blog post, one I wrote in 2011, which was, I now know, the last holiday Mom and Dad would spend together in this house.  All the more reason for appreciation:


Our old house has seen better days. The siding is dented, the walkway is cracked, the yard is muddy and tracked with Copper's paw prints. Inside is one of the fullest and most aromatic trees we've ever chopped down. Cards line the mantel, the fridge is so full it takes ten minutes to find the cream cheese. Which is to say we are as ready as we will ever be. The family is gathering. I need to make one more trip to the grocery store.

This morning I thought about a scene from one of my favorite Christmas movies, one I hope we'll have time to watch in the next few days. In "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart has just learned he faces bank fraud and prison, and as he comes home beside himself with worry, he grabs the knob of the banister in his old house — and it comes off in his hand. He is exasperated at this; it seems to represent his failures and shortcomings.

By the end of the movie, after he's been visited by an angel, after his family and friends have rallied around him in an unprecedented way, after he's had a chance to see what the world would have been like without him — he grabs the banister knob again. And once again, it comes off in his hand. But this time, he kisses it. The house is still cold and drafty and in need of repair. But it has been sanctified by friendship and love and solidarity.

Christmas doesn't take away our problems. But it counters them with joy. It reminds us to appreciate the humble, familiar things that surround us every day, and to draw strength from the people we love. And surely there is a bit of the miraculous in that.

Photo: Flow TV

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Every Valley

The world doesn't go away just because the holidays are here.  Even the most stubborn optimist must sometimes remove the rose-tinted glasses.

Mine were most decidedly not on this morning as I was working in a quick run before the rain started up again. When the mostly all-carols classical station switched over to a sedate Haydn number I switched my little iPod mini from radio to music. I needed a Messiah fix!

"Every valley shall be exalted," sang the tenor. "And every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain." At "crooked," he warbled between notes. At "straight" he rang out true and bold.

I thought of all the souls these words have comforted through the centuries. I thought of how they were comforting me this morning. Every valley exalted. Yes!

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Officially Christmas

It's the return of an old friend. An acquaintance you might be a bit embarrassed knowing. But it's back — and it's beautiful.

I speak of tinsel.

It's not what the stylish trees are wearing this holiday season. It's messy and flimsy. It lodges itself in every corner of the living room. But it's Suzanne's favorite holiday accessory, and now that she's back ... it's back, too.

So I'm sitting here looking at the stuff, the way it reflects the light; the sheer, stringy wonder of it; how it amplifies the glitter of the holiday, its shiny appeal.

Without it, the tree still retains some connection to the soil that gave it birth. With it, the tree has stepped over the line. It is officially artifice. It is officially wonder.

It is officially Christmas.


Monday, December 21, 2015


The tree is up, a big fir that fills the house with fragrance — and overflows the corner it's been assigned.

I sit down to write my post but first must move the rocking chair to the other side of the room, in front of the hutch. There now ... that's better.

To fit the tree we must reconfigure. The console moves into the hall and becomes a convenient flat surface to decorate — but also to pile the stuff that needs to be taken upstairs.

The rocking chair, parked where it is now,  reminds me of a Christmas 22 years ago, when Claire was a toddler and had begun waking up at 5 in the morning for some strange reason (an excess of exuberance?). We would sit in another (long since dispatched to the basement) chair in front of that same hutch and read the holiday books — Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Night Before Christmas.

If I close my eyes I can almost feel Claire's squirmy little body in my arms. I would have been drop-dead tired, of course. But even then I knew those moments were precious.

Reconfiguration: It's what we need. It's what holidays help us do.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pollination Station

It finally felt like winter when I took my lunchtime walk yesterday. A brisk wind made the 40-something-degree air bite more deeply into the bones. But I warmed up quickly and was once again ready to walk past the Botanical Gardens without going in.

I'm so glad I didn't!

This year's holiday show was as magical as the others I've seen. The theme was  Pollination Station and the scenes were full of bees, bats and butterflies and the fruits and flowers they pollinate — all made of tree bark, willow shoots, grapevine tendrils, acorn caps and pine cone scales. An H gauge train chugged through the scene crossing ravines on rough-hewn trestles.

You could bend down and peek through little porthole windows into the winter homes of bugs, complete with twig-fashioned rocking chairs and mossy coverlets.

It was, in the best sense of the word, transporting. Full of wonder and whimsy.



Friday, December 18, 2015

Taking Stock

On my last office day for two weeks I revel in the quiet. I have stories to edit and projects to complete but I find myself pruning the fern and peeling a clementine.

I think about the writer's need for time and space and how little of it I've had. I think about a new year coming and what it will bring.

How easy it is to stay put, to walk the same paths and think the same thoughts. How comforting and deadening it can be. It requires great effort to chart a new course, to seek perspective.

I'm hoping my time off will give me a chance to take stock, to search for new routes and trails. It's not a long time, but it might be enough. I'm hoping that it is.


Thursday, December 17, 2015


It had been five years since my last TubaChristmas concert — which I learned by checking the archives of this blog (now there's a scary thought!)  — so that when I arrived at the Kennedy Center last night I looked for a crowd at the Millennium Stage, the free performance venue where the event had been held in the past.

That corner of the place was dark, though, because this year TubaChristmas made the big time. Still free, still an hour long, but gloriously housed and staged in the Concert Hall. There were tubas and sousaphones and euphoniums on the stage. There were tubas and sousaphones and euphoniums in the balconies. There were tubas and sousaphones and euphoniums everywhere.

Tiny lights glistened from their ample bells. Wreaths bedecked them. There were Santa hats aplenty, too — these on the players rather than their instruments. And the carols played by these lower brass were a spirited and at times out-of-sync cacophony.

It was Appolinaire's first concert at the Kennedy Center, his first American concert of any sort. (Just about everything is his first these days!) No stern, snooty longhairs for him. Now he will think that all concerts are free, all concerts are singalong — and all concerts are joyful. Not a bad introduction!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Good News

Good news from the heartland: A nephew and cousin — a young father battling cancer — has just learned that he is cancer-free. After months of grueling treatments and countless prayers to spare him, he has received the best news anyone can — that he is healthy, that he will live.

Now he can get back to his new wife and baby son, to his plans and dreams. He can get on, too, with the petty problems of life, which are now seen for what they are, no more than sticks and pebbles along the way, nothing like the chasm, the void, he has just traversed.

And for a while his experience will be a beacon to us all — until once again the sticks and pebbles seem like boulders and logs, and we let them bog us down; until the next time the world tilts crazily and we see that what we thought was important isn't and what we seldom think about is all that really matters.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Half Hidden

This is a good year for ornamental cabbage, its creamy centers unblemished by frost spots or drought. I noticed a stand of these plants on my walk yesterday. Light pink shading to ivory, edged by sage green.

I stared hard at them as I passed, lost myself momentarily in their spiky beauty so that I could re-create them on the page this morning. A type of stillness in their leafy flower. "A violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye," in Wordsworth's style.

Later I would stroll past the Capitol and the Supreme Court, philosophies etched in stone, all the grandeur of official Washington.

But what stayed in mind were the cabbage plants, their quiet beauty, their brave salute to winter.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Mind Travel

I whiled away some Metro wait time this morning staring at a map in the station. This is one for Reston-Wiehle, the current (but I hope not forever) western terminus of the Silver Line. I fixate on the southern exit,  how I could cross Sunrise Valley Drive at Commerce to Wethersfield then cut through the golf course to Durand and Purple Beech.

From there I'd take Soapstone all the way to Lawyers, Steeplechase and home.

It's a walker's fantasy. An hour-long walk at best. It would involve the kind of time I don't have anymore.

For me, for now, the route is for mind travel only. A way to let the walker's imagination wander while the walker's body is doing what it has to do.

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Friday, December 11, 2015


A lunchtime walk on Monday, heading south on First to the Mall, then turning back north at Seventh only to find myself at the Navy Memorial ...  at noon ... on Pearl Harbor Day.

There was a brass band, a color guard, music, salutes and a bugler to play Taps. So I stayed a while, listened to the invocation, put my hand on my heart for the National Anthem.

I had forgotten. And it is important to remember.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Archaeology of Grief

"The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten."

I'm more than halfway through Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk and the dogeared pages are growing. More and more often I find myself holding her phrases in mind, turning them over, searching for the invisible strings that tether them to the page, so light are they, so deft at plumbing the dusky chambers of the human heart.

This one today came after a description of a dying rabbit and how adept Macdonald became at the coup de grace, at putting the bunnies her hawk, Mabel, killed out of their misery. "The serious, everything puzzle that was death and going away."

Macdonald was grieving her father's abrupt passing as she tamed her hawk; she was learning to be a participant in life rather than just an observer. That's what gave her the "momentary shouldering of responsibility" that allowed her to kill the rabbit.

And she was ruminating, always ruminating. She didn't feel regret for the killing but for the animal itself. "It wasn't a promising sorrow," she says. "It was the sorrow of all deaths."

I bought this book because I thought it would be a companion in grief. It has become just that. It is  the spade, but it is also the salve.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Foggy Start

A foggy start to this December morning. Moisture beaded up on the car windows, so I took extra care backing down the drive. From such cautious beginnings come slower, less urgently paced days.

Today's Metro ride on the Silver Line took me through bands of gray clouds with neon signs flashing: "Walmart," "Exxon." Tyson's Corners were softened by the mist.

Clouds had engulfed the city, too, graying the red-brick Building Museum and hiding the pockmarked steps at Judiciary Square.

I hurried to the office, energized by the anonymity, seeking the quiet that comes with still weather, a place to sit down, open the book, call up the screen — and write.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Advent is the season of waiting, of ancient chants and plainsong. It is the season of patience and hope and muted gladness, a glimpse of distant mountains, the lure of the promised land.

Advent is, therefore, a good time for new beginnings, for celebrations of all kinds, planned and unplanned.

I write today on one of the latter. Unless you count the two years in a dusty African village, the nine months awaiting a visa, the long years before that.

It is, for my family, a day of fulfillment and rejoicing. To which we all say "Amen."


Monday, December 7, 2015

Sunsets in Arlington

Yesterday I saw the house where Suzanne and Appolinaire will live. It sits on a ridge in Arlington where, on a wintry day when the house across the street has been torn down and the new, big one not yet built in its place, you can almost see the Capitol dome and the red light atop the Washington Monument.

It's an amazing situation, made possible by the generosity and hard work of two dear friends (who live next door). And the more of the place Suzanne and Appolinaire saw yesterday, the wider their eyes became.

This is not your typical one-bedroom apartment in the boonies or crowded share in Columbia Heights. This is kismet — perhaps what you get after living for years without electricity or running water.

Whatever the reason, come January, the happy couple will move in and inherit not only an enviable, close-in location but also an untrammeled view of the western sky.  A bank of kitchen windows will see to it that they end each day with views like this. And if I know them as well as I think they do, they will end each day feeling as blessed as they do now.

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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Group P.S.

Last night in the course of emailing about our new list my book group friends and I discovered that one of the books, Confederacy of Dunces, was on the list in 2012. It was our August pick and sometimes we skip August, so that might have been the reason.

But this brings up another advantage of hanging with the same bunch of people for years. You are growing old and forgetful together. You can tell each other that, yes, you were well into the last mystery before you realized ... I've read this one before.

You can admit that not only must you now keep a list of all the books you read, but you must also annotate the list, add some quick phrase or note that will help you recall what each book was about.

Because the books, they come faster than the years.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A New Chapter

My book group met night before last, only four of us this time out of a dwindling number of eight. It was our annual book picking — but we decided to add new members, too.

We did not come to this decision lightly. We've taken in no new members for eight years. But what's eight years when you've been together 25?

The children we were birthing when the group formed are now marrying and settling down. It won't be long before there's a grandchild or two. But what time and busyness couldn't derail, major life changes have. Two of us left and came back years later. But the recent departures will be permanent. People are retiring and moving away. We want to keep a quorum of sorts. We want to keep gathering on the first Wednesday of the month (more or less) to chat about Lila, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace and anything else that crosses our minds.

So in January we add a new chapter. We become a slightly altered group — but this time altered by addition rather than subtraction. 

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Active Shooter

On the day of the latest mass shooting in the United States, I took part in an active shooter exercise at my workplace. We learned how to run — low to the ground in a zigzag pattern. We learned how to hide — turn off the lights, close and lock your door, barricade it if possible. And we learned how to fight — go for the hand that is holding the gun, do whatever you can to slow or disrupt the killer.

I sat politely, even took notes. Colleagues joked and laughed about crawling under their desks, George Costanza-style. "I learned a lot from watching Seinfeld," said our presenter. 

I don't know if employees at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino had taken active shooter training. But could a 30-minute presentation have helped them  counter the assault rifles and semiautomatic handguns? And more to the point ... is this how we want to live?

(M2 Browning machine gun, courtesy Wikipedia)


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Great Migration

I'd wanted to read The Warmth of Other Suns for years, from when I first heard about it. I knew little about the movement of African Americans from the South to the North other than that it occurred.

I hadn't realized the time frame of the migration — that it lasted from World War well into the 1960s. And I was unprepared for the calmly recited horrors of the Jim Crow South that drove people North and West.

The three people author Isabel Wilkerson chooses to follow — chooses after conducting more than 1,200 interviews — talked with her over days, weeks and years. They shared every detail of the fearful, stunted lives they left behind and the hardscrabble lives they found when they arrived.  We take the train with Ida Mae and her family as they head to Chicago and with George as he escapes to New York. We ride along with Pershing later known as Robert as he drives across the country fighting sleep because few motels accepted black guests.

Wilkerson accompanied the three on trips to visit friends and family, back to the southern lands they left behind. She visited them in the hospital and attended their funerals. She knew their dreams and disappointments.

So it was with no small measure of authority that at the end of the book Wilkerson could write:
The three who had come out of the South were left widowed but solvent, and each found some measure of satisfaction because whatever had happened to them, however things had unfolded, it had been of their own choosing, and they could take comfort in that. They believed with all that was in them that they were better off for having made the Migration, that they may have made many mistakes in their lives, but leaving the South had not been one of them.
(Tens of thousands of emigres from the South moved to Harlem in New York City.)

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dark House

Woke up this morning to a dark house. It was an early rising, and I'm used to coming downstairs to  dim light and shadows, thanks to a fluorescent light over the kitchen sink that has become so much a fixture that I don't notice it anymore — unless it's out, as it was today.

Gone were the shadowy shapes of the worn couch and wing chairs. Gone the hutch and table. Gone the carpet and trim. Instead, the blue dial of the clock radio face asserted itself, and the microwave timer threw its glowing dots into the void.

It was a different downstairs that greeted me this morning, a blank and mysterious one. One that made me realize that what I usually think of as darkness isn't that at all. It's only a dusky substitute.  

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